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Issue 10 - April 2013


  1. Message from NASA Astrophysics Division Director
  2. Program Manager's Update: Keeping our Eyes on Exoplanets
  3. Exo Science: Infrared Spectra, Small Planets, Giant Spaceships
  4. 2.4 More Reasons for Exo Science
  5. Kepler 4th B-Day at 40 Million Miles in Space
  6. WFIRST SDT Racing Out of the Gate
  7. Feb Snowstorm Clears 6 Nights for LBTI
  8. New SAG to Define Probe Science Metrics
  9. Eternal Sunshine and Endless Days
  10. A Glimmer of Light from Exoplanets
  11. Get Your Tickets to PlanetQuest's Social Media Gala
  12. ExoToon: Angry Exoplanets

1. Message from NASA Astrophysics Division Director

Photo of Paul Hertz
By Paul Hertz, Director, NASA Astrophysics Division

This is a time of opportunity for NASA Astrophysics. With space-based observatories spanning the electromagnetic spectrum and a robust research and analysis program, we are continuing to make spectacular scientific discoveries. We have developed an implementation plan to address the goals of the 2010 Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics: New Worlds, New Horizons. A new initiative, Theory and Computational Astrophysics Networks, in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF), has attracted over one hundred proposals for over thirty networks. NASA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the European Space Agency (ESA) to cement its partnership on Euclid. NASA selected three proposals for science investigations on Euclid and its nominee, Jason Rhodes (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL), was appointed by ESA to the ESA Euclid Science Team. The Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (AFTA) Science Definition Team (SDT) is studying the use of the 2.4m telescope assets for advancing the science of WFIRST. A Study on Applications of Large Space Optics (SALSO) was undertaken to evaluate future strategies for utilizing the assets to advance other NASA goals. A task force of the Astrophysics Subcommittee (APS) will develop an Astrophysics Roadmap during 2013, to create a compelling, thirty-year vision for Astrophysics at NASA. Community members are strongly encouraged to participate in this activity by contributing white papers and attending community workshops. We continue to look for scientists who would like to join the NASA staff for a few years and bring their talent and ideas to influence the nation's space Astrophysics program.

2. Program Manager's Update: Keeping our Eyes on Exoplanets

Photo of Gary Blackwood
By Gary Blackwood, Manager, Exoplanet Exploration Program Office

Dear Exoplanet Colleagues,

The growing interest in exoplanet science was fully evident at the January AAS in Long Beach: exoplanets were the subject of 3 prize lectures, one plenary lecture, and several sessions and posters. One of the new products on show at the meeting was ExEP's "Eyes on Exoplanets" - if you haven't yet checked out, don't miss it! It's a great way to visualize the discoveries to date.

Current efforts within the Exoplanet Exploration Program are designed to advance both near and long-term exoplanet science. The Kepler Mission continues to collect troves of data, and the project has now released data through Quarter 14 to the public; we are looking forward to the 2013 Kepler follow-up season and to the discoveries that will surely follow. Read More...

3. Exo Science: Infrared Spectra, Small Planets, Giant Spaceships

Photo of Wes Traub
By Wes Traub and Steve Unwin

New HR 8799 bcde near-infrared spectra were recently announced by two groups of friendly competitors. One group, Oppenheimer et al., observed 8799 b,c,d,e in J and H bands with the P-1640 system at Palomar, including the Palm-3000 AO system, an apodized-pupil, Lyot-type coronagraph, a Mach-Zehnder interferometer calibrator, and an integral field spectrograph, finding that the b and d planets seem to match the spectra of an L-type brown dwarf, the c planet matching a T-type brown dwarf, and the e planet resembling a Saturn spectrum. Another group, Konopacky et al., observed 8799 b,c in K band with Keck II, the OSIRIS integral field spectrograph, and adaptive optics imaging, finding spectral evidence for CO and H2O, but not CH4, which they interpret as being consistent with a formation scenario that includes core accretion but not gravitational instability. Read More...

4. 2.4 More Reasons for Exo Science

By Peter Lawson
Artist concept of Kepler spacecraft.

It was a pleasure in January to be part of the Exoplanet Observatory (ExO) presentation in Huntsville at the NASA Workshop on the Study on Applications for Large Space Optics (SALSO). The separate presentations by Olivier Guyon, Mike Shao, John Trauger, and Doug Lisman made a strong and unified case for the use of the 2.4-m telescope for exoplanet science. The strength of the exoplanet presentations is reflected in the post-workshop summary that highlighted ExO as one of seven concepts retained in the portfolio for future study. Those studies have been put on hold at least until May, pending the completion of the WFIRST-AFTA study. Read More...

5. Kepler 4th B-Day at 40 Million Miles in Space

By Nick Gautier

Kepler celebrated the 4th anniversary of its launch on March 6.

As of early March the Kepler spacecraft was 40 million miles from Earth and operating normally in science data collection mode. A quarterly roll was executed on January 11 after quarter 15 data collection was terminated. Quarter 16 data is now being collected. The next quarterly roll is scheduled for April 4 when the last month of quarter 16 data will be sent back to Earth and quarter 17 data collection will start.

In January an additional 461 planetary candidates were announced from the results of analysis of quarters 1 through 6. Kepler now has 2740 planet candidates with 115 confirmed as planets. Read More...

6. WFIRST SDT Racing Out of the Gate

By Neil Gehrels

The current Science Definition Team for WFIRST is moving at breakneck speed. The committee was formed in October 2012 and has its final report due in April 2013. This version of the mission is called AFTA-WFIRST (Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets - Wide Field InfraRed Space Telescope) and utilizes one of two 2.4m telescopes provided to NASA. There are many science areas where WFIRST-AFTA (also termed WFIRST2.4) can make huge steps forward. In this newsletter we highlight coronagraphy, or direct imaging, of exoplanets. Following the charter from NASA HQ, the SDT is looking at the possible addition of a coronagraph to the payload. This would be a powerful instrument that could make some of the first direct pictures of exoplanets. It would be able to see Jupiter-sized planets and would be a first step toward a future mission to image exo-Earths!

7. Feb Snowstorm Clears 6 Nights for LBTI

By Rafael Millan-Gabet

In its first observing run of the 2013A season, the LBTI (P.I. Phil Hinz, University of Arizona) had to brave a snow storm before opening its dome for six nights of observing in late February. Two nights were planned for commissioning of the NASA nulling instrument. Following the snowstorm, the jet stream was located over the observatory, resulting in very fast seeing and difficult to track fringes. Nevertheless, a number of commissioning milestones were achieved. The commissioning data obtained will enable first tests of the applicability to the LBTI of novel "self-calibration" statistical algorithms. The other four nights of the observing run were dedicated to science observations for other LBT partners using the 3-5 micron camera which is also housed in the LBTI instrument; using direct imaging, aperture masking interferometry and high contrast (apodizing phase plate) methods. Meanwhile, the LBTI Science Team has been busy preparing to develop spatial models and a methodology for converting the LBTI observables into exozodi measurements. A technical night is scheduled for April and the next observing runs are planned for May and July 2013.

8. New SAG to Define Probe Science Metrics

By Rémi Soummer

The Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group (ExoPAG, is starting a new community-based study analysis group (SAG-9, to define the science requirements and characteristics of probe-scale exoplanet direct imaging missions. This new SAG-9 is complementary to the Science and Technology Definition Teams (STDTs,, which will be looking at technology needs associated with two different direct detection architectures (coronagraphs and starshades), and then developing a design reference mission for each architecture that could realistically be accomplished for a cost below $1B. SAG-9 will define the metrics by which the science yield of various exoplanet probe- to medium-scale direct-imaging mission designs can be compared and evaluated in order to facilitate a well-informed decision process by NASA. The ExoPAG is currently seeking new members for SAG-9 from the community. If you are interested in contributing to this group, please contact Remi Soummer.

9. Eternal Sunshine and Endless Days

By Sarah Ballard, Sagan Fellow, University of Washington
Photo of Sarah Ballard

M dwarf stars are the not only most numerous in the universe, comprising something like 75% of all stars, but are also the likeliest to host small and potentially rocky planets. Recent findings from the planet sample uncovered by NASA's Kepler mission indicate that the nearest Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of an M dwarf is very likely to be located right off of our back porch: only a handful of parsecs away. The smaller luminosity and smaller size of M dwarfs pack a one-two punch: planets orbiting in their habitable zones are both closer to the star (making them easier to detect) and also more amenable to atmospheric characterization. Life on a planet around such a star would be the stuff of poetry here on Earth, for reasons of the planet's spin synchronization with its host star: days that never end, life that might evolve at a location of eternal sunrise or sunset. I use photometry from the Kepler mission, in tandem with follow-up optical and near-infrared spectroscopy that I gather the Apache Point Observatory, to characterize a subset of these planets uncovered by Kepler. If you'd like to read more about my research, please visit my website (

10. A Glimmer of Light from Exoplanets

By Sloane Wiktorowicz, Sagan Fellow, UC Santa Cruz
Photo of Sloane Wiktorowicz

The amazing exoplanet results from the Warm Spitzer mission have arisen from herculean efforts to correct for instrumental systematic effects. These systematics are apparent in all cutting-edge work, but they are especially significant in photometry due to its inherently non-differential nature. Polarimetry is inherently differential, and with a "home-grown" polarimeter I developed with minimal systematics in mind, I am searching for scattered light from spatially unresolved exoplanets with part per million accuracy. I aim to validate Warm Spitzer results, and extend our direct observations of transiting and non-transiting exoplanets into the optical, using an historic 3-m telescope overlooking the 10th largest city in the country.

11. Get Your Tickets to PlanetQuest's Social Media Gala

By Anya Biferno
Eyes on the Exoplanets

PlanetQuest, the online presence for ExEP E/PO has started a new Facebook page and has reactivated its Twitter account (nearly 20,000 followers), and we hope you will join us in reaching out to the public through this avenue. In addition to posting the latest news we want to tell the story of exoplanet exploration, and you can help. Send us your favorite "Did you know...", exoplanet fact, weird planet, or tell us what life might be like under unusual circumstances - use your imagination! Please keep in mind that posts should either be about 120 characters or less, or should be easily broken into small parts (and artwork/photos are a big plus as long as they are cleared for public release and/or are free-use). Send your thoughts to Anya Biferno.

12. ExoToon: Angry Exoplanets

By Stephen Kane This Issue's Comic

Think you can do better than our Exoplanet cartoon? We're accepting contributions! Please send your cartoons in pdf format, to The best submission received by May 6, 2013 will feature in the next edition of the Newsletter. Selection will be done by a very non-expert committee, comprised of anyone within 30ft of the editor's office on May 8. By submitting your work, you are giving us permission to use your cartoon (with credits) for any future edition of the NASA New Worlds News Newsletter. Please remember that, once emailed out to the mailing list, we have no control over what anyone else chooses to do with your work.


NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program Office
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March 15, 2013
From counting to characterising exoplanets
March 7, 2013
Name Your Own Exoplanet - For $4.99
March 6, 2013
Could Tiny Stars Be Home to Mirror Earths?
February 22, 2013
Discovered: The Most Adorable Planet Yet
February 14, 2013
How to Find Aliens (Alien Plants, Too) by Probing a Planet's Colors
February 7, 2013
A Mirror Earth Right Around the Corner?
January 25, 2013
Cosmic Light Show: Auroras Around Distant Worlds
January 11, 2013
Stellar Dust Ring Could Promise Great Things
January 9, 2013
Planetary Census: Hundreds of Billions in the Milky Way?
January 8, 2013
'Exocomet' numbers nearly tripled in new study


From Stars to Life: Connecting our Understanding of Star Formation, Planet Formation, Astrochemistry and Astrobiology - April 3-6
Location: Gainesville, FL
Transformational Science with ALMA: From Dust to Rocks to Planet Formation and Evolution of Planetary Systems - April 8-12
Location: Big Island, HI
Ice and Planet Formation - May 15-17
Location: Lund Observatory, Sweden
AAS Summer Meeting - June 2-6
Location: Indianapolis, IN
IAU Symposium 299: Exploring the Formation and Evolution of Planetary Systems - June 2-7
Location: Victoria, BC, Canada
From Exoplanets to Distant Galaxies: SPICA's New Window on the Cool Universe - Jun 18-21
Location: Tokyo, Japan
AGU Chapman Conference: Crossing the Boundaries in Planetary Atmospheres - From Earth to Exoplanets - June 24 - 28
Location: NASA GSFC
Protostars and Planets VI - Jul 15-20
Location: Heidelburg, Germany
Dust Growth in Star & Planet Formation 2013 - Jul 22-25
Location: Heidelburg, Germany
2013 Sagan Summer Workshop: Imaging Planets and Disks - Jul 29 - Aug 2
Location: Pasadena, CA
Exoplanets and Brown Dwarfs - Sept 2-5
Location: Univ. of Hertfordshire, U.K.


Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP)
PlanetQuest - Public Outreach Website
NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI)